Cormorant graces Six Mile

Northwoods Notebook

A juvenile double-crested cormorant glides at Six Mile Lake. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photos)

It’s not often I get to photograph a controversial figure out on Six Mile Lake.

This individual wasn’t shy, either, even coming closer as I snapped away like paparazzi. Maybe it was the first camera this juvenile double-crested cormorant had ever seen.

While not an uncommon bird, it was the first cormorant I’d seen on Six Mile Lake, which in terms of water bodies probably is on the small side for a species that likes to hang with others of its kind. Parts of the Great Lakes can harbor colonies that number in the thousands.

This one, solo, cruised by with the distinctive low profile of swimming cormorants, only its back and head on long neck visible. I always thought sandhill cranes, loons and turkeys all had echoes of the dinosaurs, but this bird may be even more prehistoric up close, like having some mini-Loch Ness monster on the lake.

I viewed it as a cool visitor. Others are not so charitable. How many other birds in the Upper Peninsula, after all, have legislation working through Congress calling for more lethal measures to control their numbers?

Cormorants, with wide webbed feet to propel them, are adept at catching fish.

The main sponsor of this legislation, U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, is the Watersmeet Republican who represents the Upper Peninsula and northern counties below the bridge.

He and others argue the cormorants, once like bald eagles pushed to the edge by DDT use and other human factors, have not just recovered but grown way past the point they should be at, causing real damage to fisheries and habitat. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, some Great Lakes colonies have doubled in size as few as five years.

The cormorants are superb fishing birds, streamlined and agile underwater, with wide webbed feet to propel them after prey. They proved so adept that some parts of China and Japan for centuries enlisted them in fishing, like a form of aquatic falconry, sending the cormorants into the water with a band around their neck to keep them from swallowing their catch.

In North America, those skills are not so admired. Bergman contends the birds now threaten a sports fishing industry in the Great Lakes that provides more than 35,000 direct jobs in Michigan and pumps $2.5 billion a year into the state’s economy.

It’s not just the perceived toll the birds can take on fishing stocks — they can alter the environment as well. Their roosting sites and breeding rookeries can become so covered with acidic, corrosive bird droppings it kills the trees and other vegetation.

In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had begun letting some states take steps such as spraying oil on cormorant eggs, which seals air holes in the shell and smothers the embryo inside, or shooting birds to control numbers. But in 2016, a judge halted these practices after the FWS was sued on claims the agency had not sufficiently studied the effects on cormorant populations. These opponents contend the cormorants’ effects are exaggerated by a fishing industry that resents any competition.

The FWS still does have the ability to issue a permit for lethal control for certain cormorant problems: predation to aquaculture or fish hatcheries; health or human safety concerns, such as colonies near airports; property damage from large concentrations of the birds; and the effect on other species that can be muscled out or outfished by the more numerous cormorants.

But for now, any further such controls are on hold, unless Bergman’s bill advances. It would allow restoration of past cormorant control practices until the FWS finishes its research. While the bill had a hearing and was voted out of the House Natural Resources Committee on July 11, it is unclear if it will come before the full House.

The FWS meanwhile is continuing its new research with hearings in several states this month, including one Thursday in Lansing.

“We’re working through the process,” said Tom Cooper, migratory birds program chief in the FWS Midwest Region, headquartered in the Minneapolis area.

The cormorant situation sounds similar to the talk surrounding gray wolves: some want them all gone, some want them all left alone, while wildlife agencies look for some balance that maintains a stable population but lets agencies step in when conflicts develop.

The solution is never simple. “It’s a very complex issue, with biological, social and economic effects,” Cooper noted.

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On a lighter note, late summer has already seen a major amount of bird migration through the region. Thursday evening, a large flight of nighthawks could be seen over Iron Mountain about an hour before sunset. The weekend before had flocks of swallows.

Ryan Brady, the conservation biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources who monitors migration from the Ashland, Wis., area, said the past week saw the movement south pick up pace, especially among warblers and neotropical species such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings. The earliest to depart usually are the adult males, he said, as is the case with ruby-throated hummingbirds as well.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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